Apparently Ireland is now poised to remove its constitutional prohibition of blasphemy. The decriminalisation of blasphemy will undoubtedly be hailed by many as yet another step toward a more open, inclusive and tolerant Ireland. But, in reality, few people feel inhibited in their speech by Ireland’s blasphemy laws, which have not seen a successful prosecution in the history of the State. So one cannot help wondering what all the fuss is about.
The most obvious rationale for removing the prohibition of blasphemy is that it might arbitrarily restrict citizens’ ability to freely express their political, religious and moral views in the public square. But the lacklustre campaign surrounding this referendum, and the history of non-prosecution under our blasphemy laws, suggest that if we are looking for threats to freedom of expression, we are looking in the wrong place.
Ironically, the biggest threat to freedom of expression in our country is not to be found in our longstanding prohibition of blasphemy, nor indeed anywhere else in our Constitution, but in the ranks of a movement whose leading lights were ardent defenders of freedom of thought and expression. The blasphemy referendum only serves to distract us from the main contemporary threat to freedom of expression, which resides in the ranks of the Irish progressive movement.
For Irish progressivism harbours within its ranks a new breed of activist no less intolerant and overbearing than their Bible-thumping counterparts, even if a little more urbane and soft-spoken. They like to pass themselves off as sophisticated, free-thinking and forward-looking reformers. They can all “tick the box” on a range of issues to demonstrate their progressive credentials, from abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights, to liberation from the confining bonds of “organised religion” and whatever the next big progressive idea happens to be.
‘Opponents’ of progress
These guardians of progress, convinced that history is on their side, are determined to launch Ireland headlong into the 21st century. Indeed, they are so impatient to get the job done that they cannot wait for the arguments to play out on their merits. Instead, the opponents of progress must be silenced or railroaded out of the public square.
This is achieved by subjecting them to a mock trial, at which they are summarily convicted as enemies of progress. The trick is to harness a bucketload of emotional and rhetorical energy to the task of undercutting the character and standing of the speaker, so that his or her arguments are “dead on arrival” and we are all saved the trouble of rationally evaluating them on their merits.
This is sectarianism, pure and simple, even if decked out in progressive garb
No need to listen to the opponent of abortion, because she is obviously incapable of empathising with real women. No point in engaging with the opponent of same-sex marriage – he is clearly a closet homophobe, whatever he might say to the contrary. And as for the troglodyte who raises awkward questions about the medical and psychiatric effects of transgender operations: well, he must be scientifically illiterate and hell-bent on destroying people’s happiness, right?
This is sectarianism, pure and simple, even if decked out in progressive garb. There are many workplaces and pubs in Ireland where anyone who dares to speak their mind freely on a range of political and social questions, if they evince the slightest doubt about the progressive agenda, risks stirring up a hornet’s nest of opprobrium and contempt. From painful experience, people learn to simply hold their tongues and keep their dissenting views to themselves.
Stigmatised as bigots
And so, in one fell swoop, self-styled “progressives” have managed to engender a new underclass of citizens who are no longer welcome in the public square, and a new cohort of citizens who may not be bothered by blasphemy, but cannot bear to have their progressive views challenged in public. And this, we are solemnly told, is “progress”.
Undoubtedly, many Irish people who would self-identify as progressives would not attempt to stigmatise fellow citizens just because they hold views different to their own. However, the intolerant, judgmental and overbearing attitudes manifested in recent years by a significant number of card-carrying “progressives” have driven many dissenters from the progressive agenda underground, by signalling to them that if they “come out” in their true colours, they will be stigmatised as uncaring and irrational bigots.
These considerations reveal the fatuity of the progressivist narrative, according to which Ireland is emerging from the darkness of Catholic unreason into the light of liberal reason. “Progressive” victories in Ireland have been secured by converting our public square into a training camp in conformism and groupthink that would be the envy of a fascist state.
Those who value freedom of expression should be much more worried about the chilling effects of sectarian “progressivism” on public debate than an article of our Constitution that is mostly a dead letter. One can only hope that true progressives will have the courage to call out the fake progressives for what they are: a band of sectarians who have wandered far from the progressive fold, having forgotten, in their zeal for change, that true and lasting social progress is impossible without a free, inclusive and vibrant public sphere.
David Thunder is a research fellow and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain